The county staff were invited to make a brief statement ("please, brief," said the acting chair) about the site that they were voting on tonight. (Uh-oh, I thought. They're going through the motions here. They've already made up their minds.) The staff ran through their talking points for the site: a willing seller, not near any schools or churches, access to Highway 54, no current agriculture, heavily wooded, yada yada.
Then the public (who had been waiting around for three hours to speak) had their say. Many made appeals to preserving a beautiful rural area, which had emotional appeal but didn't seem to carry the weight people hoped they would. The better arguments (I thought) were on the technical merits: how could you possibly decide the best way to deal with trash is to truck it eleven miles down two-lane roads away from the interstates, and put it right next to our drinking water supply? Why put an industrial facility in a place with no infrastructure?
The commissioners were extremely reluctant to talk about the issue. And who can blame them, when a hostile room is facing them? (I have no doubt they had put the waste transfer station at the end of long agenda to try to blunt the edge of the opposition; if you have to face an angry crowd, at least let it be an exhausted one.) One commissioner (Pam Hemminger) was swayed by the public arguments and thought the proposed site was a bad one. The others, however, appealed to the necessity of having a fair and transparent process, and that this site was the best that their fair process could generate, and now they were slam out of time to find a better site, or even a better process to find a better site. The general sentiment of the commissioners was, "Yes, I know, this sucks, but we have no other realistic choice at this point."
Most of the public crowd had no patience with talk of 'process'. "That's the way heartless bureaucrats talk – 'sorry, gotta follow the process.' It's a bad decision, dammit!" But I listened very carefully, because I think I actually understood what the commissioners meant, and it's not an easy point to grasp.
Normally, when a group of people are trying to make a decision that affects everyone -- like, "Where shall we go out to eat?"-- they follow a process of ad-hoc suggestions, followed by counter-suggestions, followed by a call for consensus:
"How about the steak house?"
"Joey's vegetarian. Maybe the Panda Palace?"
(Pause . . . no one's seconded the motion . . . Chinese isn't going over well.)
"Winston's? Yes? Everyone? Ok then, Winston's it is."
That decision-making process works really well . . . when everyone affected is in the room. Everyone has a chance to speak up, raise objections, make suggestions, and ultimately converge on a solution. It's very easy for anyone to propose an alternative at any time in the process . . . and the stakes of the decision are relatively low. But what about when everyone isn't in the room, and can never all be in the room? And the outcome will inevitably be unacceptable to someone? Like, when choosing where to put the county's trash?
Big decisions like that face a logistical problem, and a fairness problem, when it comes to proposing alternatives. Logistical, because there are a huge number of potential solutions that could be considered, and if you argued each one individually you would never finish. Fairness, because just suggesting one alternative ("how about putting the trash over there?") immediately puts people affected by that suggestion at a disadvantage that other equivalent sites do not have to face, just by the accident of it being considered. Another fairness question involved is usually called "the tyranny of the majority" – since everyone has an interest in not having trash located near them, and votes in their self-interest, the site ultimately falls on those with the least political power.
To get around these logistical and fairness issues, the county commissioners (and politicians around the world) have to resort to a process where the criteria for selecting a site are established before any particular site is considered. This is as close as we can get to John Rawls' "veil of ignorance" – we try to figure out what's fair before we find out whose ox is getting gored. Then, those criteria get applied to every possible site: not just one or two or ten or a hundred, but every possible site in the county, because it would be unfair to include some for consideration and not include others.
So, we have a collision of decision-making models. Most of the public standing by is saying, "That's a lousy choice for a site – let's find another one. What about that one over there?" The model they are using is not that different from the one used to decide which restaurant to go to; they assume they can keep generating alternatives until something fits. They assume that the limiting factor is that not enough options have been considered; if they keep making suggestions, a better option will eventually become apparent.
The commissioners, however, use a different model. They know that they can't just pull another site out of a hat at the last minute, without completely compromising the fairness of the whole process. They would have to start over from the beginning, this time with a new set of criteria, and spend another year applying those criteria to every possible site. And, no matter what criteria they use, they know they will inevitably wind up at the same conclusion: a room full of angry citizens, telling them to find another site.
So . . . assuming the process used by the commissioners is the most fair one, how did we wind up with a lousy decision? (to be continued)